Museum researchers Claude Renaud and Noel Alfonso are in the Northwest Territories, collecting lampreys with Russian colleague Alexander Naseka. Read about the effort it took to gather 65 specimens, as they slogged through five days of fieldwork.

After two days of waiting in Yellowknife, our box of chemicals finally arrived on the afternoon of June 22. We left immediately and drove the more than 700 km to Fort Simpson, taking ferries across the MacKenzie and Liard Rivers.

The first 400 km was paved and the remainder was mostly gravel. Along the way, we saw many Wood Buffalo (Bison bison athabascae) on the side of the highway or crossing it, either in herds that included calves or as solitary adults. We reached our destination late that evening.

The next day, we introduced ourselves at the Deh Cho First Nations office before we set out to begin our sampling on the Martin River, about 16 km from Fort Simpson.

We began by using electricity to collect the lampreys. Of course, electricity and water don’t mix well, which is why we are well insulated with Neoprene chest waders and
long-sleeved rubber gloves. These protect us from the electrical current that is generated by the battery-operated apparatus. One of us carries this gear on his back, while the other two are at the ready with dipnets to catch any lampreys that are attracted by the current.

Two people wearing chest waders and bug masks standing in a river.
The aliens are here! Not quite…Noel Alfonso and Claude Renaud are equipped with their chest waders and anti-bug gear, as they go electrofishing for lampreys along the Martin River, Northwest Territories. Image: Claude Renaud © Canadian Museum of Nature

Unfortunately, despite surveying a long stretch of the river bank by this method, no lampreys were collected. We then switched to a more basic collection technique−digging the river bottom with a shovel and our bare hands, which turned up four lampreys. So much for technology!

The following day we were more successful. This time, we collected 34 lampreys using both methods; however, two-thirds were still caught with the digging technique and the rest with electrofishing.

One man sitting and another standing along a dirt pile by a river.
Noel Alfonso (sitting) and Alexander Naseka take a break after digging for lamprey larvae along the banks of the Martin River. Image: Claude Renaud © Canadian Museum of Nature

You may wonder why we collect so many specimens. Well, first we are interested in collecting the larvae, not adult lampreys. Larvae represent the young life-cycle stage that will help us answer the scientific questions we are addressing. We need numerous samples because some will be studied for morphological variation, some will be dissected and their tissues examined under the microscope, while others will be used for molecular studies of gene expression.

But back to the task at hand. The work on our second day was very strenuous as it was hot−the air temperature was 26 C. The only other fish that we caught using electrofishing was a young-of-the-year Northern Pike (Esox lucius), which we released. We also captured and released a couple of wood frogs (Rana sylvatica).

Shovel beside imprint of a bear paw on muddy ground.
Impression of a bear paw along the side of the Martin River. Image: Claude Renaud © Canadian Museum of Nature

Along the banks we saw lots of tracks in the soft mud, including bear tracks! The bear spray and bear bangers are always close to us in case of close encounters. The horseflies and mosquitoes are very numerous, but thanks to a generous lathering of bug repellent we can perform our work without any problem.

Our third day of fieldwork in the Martin River was a washout. It started off well enough with a visit to the Denendeh Resource Committee office to say hello−they already knew about us. Word travels fast in this community of 1,200 people!

We attempted to reach the lower stretches of the river to sample new areas by using a rough forestry access road; however, about 200 metres in, our van got stuck in the mud. With some effort and ingenuity, by using our shovel and small trees placed under our nearly bare-threaded tires, we got unstuck. We proceeded by foot, fully loaded with our gear, and walked three kilometres, mostly in the bush, until we reached an impasse about 250 m from the river.

Deciding it was unsafe to proceed, we returned exhausted to our motel room.

A lamprey resting at bottom of an aquarium.
A larval lamprey in an aquarium back at the team’s hotel room. Image: Claude Renaud © Canadian Museum of Nature

On our fourth day, we electrofished on the downstream side of the bridge on the MacKenzie Highway across the Martin River. It was the first day that we needed to wear our bug hats in addition to using chemical bug repellent. We collected 10 lampreys by surveying about 500 m on both banks. The sky was overcast and after having collected only five lampreys our electrofishing was interrupted for about 30 minutes by a torrential downpour. Luckily, our indomitable spirit paid off and we collected another five lampreys after the rain.

Bowl holding five tiny lamprey in water.
Some of the lamprey larvae collected along the Martin River by the indomitable team of researchers. Image: Claude Renaud © Canadian Museum of Nature

On our last day on the Martin River, we collected another 17 lampreys by electrofishing, bringing our grand total to 65. We also collected five small lampreys, two young-of-the-year Northern Pike and one small sculpin (Cottus sp.), but these were released.

Today, Claude tore a hole in one of the boots of his chest waders and we have a tear in one of our dipnets. Repairs will be needed before we make our way to our next sampling sites on the Hay River.

Read the two previous blogs about this fieldwork: